Identifying sexual trafficking online

Research Institution / Organisation

University of Sheffield

In Collaboration With

N8 Policing Research Partnership between University of Sheffield, South Yorkshire Police and Teesside University.

Principal Researcher

Dr Xavier L'Hoiry

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

August 2019

Research Context

​The aim of this project is to create and test a scoring matrix for the effective identification of high-risk cases of sexual trafficking online, specifically those found on open source Internet sites such as escorting websites and online classifieds.

Although human trafficking, sexual exploitation and Modern-Day Slavery (MDS) are not new phenomena, over the past decade such activities have experienced an unprecedented boom and widespread facilitation due to the development and proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs), particularly those constituting digital and networked environments (Latonero et al., 2012; Europol 2016). In the UK, the government has highlighted the immense and ongoing difficulties of tackling serious and organised crime in the context of constantly evolving ICTs, drawing specifically upon MDS and exploitation to demonstrate the challenges of policing in this context of offending (Home Office 2018a & 2018b). This is particularly true for sexual exploitation, with researchers, policy-makers and practitioners identifying the use of escorting websites and/or online classifieds such as Adultwork, Vivastreet and others as prominent amongst offenders to carry out sexual trafficking and exploitation activities (APPG 2018). Indeed, some police forces have begun to pro-actively investigate such websites to try to identify instances of trafficking (Rodger 2017). Emerging research has shown that offenders using these websites often display similar patterns of behaviour including the use of key words, phrases and other patterns (Wang et al 2016).

This project will build on this early research by creating a matrix which synthesizes such behavioural and technical patterns in order to allow law enforcement officers to use this matrix to identify and target these types of serious and organised crime offenders with greater precision and efficiency. This will enable law enforcement agencies to direct their resources more effectively by using the matrix as a triage tool during proactive investigations of suspect profiles online. More broadly, the matrix seeks to provide an up-stream solution to the ongoing challenge of sex trafficking facilitated online, thereby helping the police to protect those individuals who are vulnerable and are exploited in this manner.

The study has been co-designed with the participating police force and emerges directly from discussions between all collaborating partners concerning the most pressing challenges for law enforcement in the policing of serious and organised crime – and how best to resolve these challenges.

Research Methodology

The key objective of the project is to design and test a matrix for the identification of cases of sexual exploitation and trafficking facilitated online. With this in mind, the project is divided in five parts:

  1. Academic partners will conduct a systematic literature review of relevant research, together with (up to) 20 expert interviews with scholars, practitioners, policy-makers and other stakeholders. Interviews will focus on the use of the use of the internet and digital technologies in the process of human trafficking in the UK, with a focus on sexual exploitation.
  2. On the basis of this research, academic partners will design a matrix of indicators that will allow law enforcement authorities to filter and identify cases which are much more likely to result in human trafficking networks being identified (by identifying online profiles that are highly indicative of trafficking and exploitation). 
  3. Representatives from South Yorkshire Police will ‘test’ the matrix in the course of their pro-active investigations and intelligence gathering via open source websites. 
  4. Academic partners will gather the views of South Yorkshire Police representatives on the utility of the matrix via interviews and/or focus groups, and identify ways of improving it. 
  5. Academic and police partners will carry out dissemination activities.

Interim reports and publications

​Not available

Date due for completion

May 2020
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